City

What You Need to Know About Philly’s Massive Oil Refinery Explosion

The blast rocked the city early this morning and caused a three-alarm fire. Here’s everything we know — including background information on Philadelphia Energy Solutions and just-approved plans for another fossil fuel facility in the area.


refinery fire explosion philadelphia energy solutions

Flames and smoke emerging from Philadelphia Energy Solutions after the refinery explosion (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

This is a developing story and may be updated.

Early Friday morning, I, like many others, awoke startled after my West Philly apartment rattled. I listened for the sounds of a thunderstorm and heard only chirping birds and passing cars. Confused, I went back to sleep. Some time passed before I awoke to my room shaking once more. This time, when I looked outside the window, the sky was bright orange.

A few miles away, a massive explosion and fire had ignited around 4 a.m. at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refining complex, located at 3100 West Passyunk Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia.

The refinery explosion had involved a vat of butane – a gaseous fuel used in cigarette lighters — fire department officials said later Friday morning. As for the cause of the explosion, officials only said that PES employees were reportedly working “in the vicinity” of the vat before the ignition occurred. They did not offer further detail.

Flames were contained but still burning as of 10 a.m. on Friday. There were no injuries or evacuations. (Officials said one PES employee had complained of chest pains but that he was assessed and did not need to be transported anywhere for care.)

Passing drivers captured footage of the explosion and what became a three-alarm fire, requiring the fire department to bring 51 pieces of equipment and 120 personnel to the scene on Friday.

Residents and businesses located just east of the refinery complex in South Philly were asked to shelter in place shortly after the explosion. The Platt Bridge and portions of I-76 were closed as first responders rushed to the scene. I-76 reopened around 6 a.m., and the shelter-in-place request — which was issued because of smoke and fire department apparatus in the area, per the Office of Emergency Management — was lifted shortly after.

Officials said PES will monitor air quality in the area following the refinery explosion and fire. As of 7:30 a.m. on Friday, they had reported “no detectable inhalants.”

Several SEPTA bus routes are detoured as a result of the explosion.

This is the second high-profile incident at PES this month. Another, smaller fire occurred in the early evening of June 10th, producing a thick plume of smoke in the sky. It’s not clear what caused that incident, and no injuries were reported.

PES claims to be the longest continuously operating refinery complex on the East Coast, as well as the largest, processing 335,000 barrels of crude oil per day. That makes the complex the 10th-largest refiner in the country, according to its website. PES headquarters are located near 17th and Market streets in Center City.

The PES complex actually consists of two refineries: Girard Point and Point Breeze. The complex’s beginning can be traced to 1866, when Atlantic Petroleum Company (which would, for some time, become Philadelphia’s largest employer) first established refinery operations in the area. Atlantic’s refinery (Point Breeze), plus another nearby refinery built by Gulf Oil Corp. in 1920 (Girard Point), would grow with the national fossil fuel boom over the next few decades before Sunoco, Inc. (which became a subsidiary of the Dallas-Based Energy Transfer company in 2017) bought the entire refinery complex by 1994. Finally, Philadelphia Energy Solutions was formed in 2012 as a result of a partnership between Sunoco and private equity company the Carlyle Group.

PES has been embroiled in controversy as of late. The joint venture declared bankruptcy in January 2018, emerging last year, and its management team has undergone personnel changes in recent months, according to Reuters.

Earlier this month, in a 13-4 vote, City Council approved a $60 million plan for another major energy facility in the vicinity of the PES refinery complex. That operation, a liquified natural gas facility, would be called the Passyunk Energy Center, a public-private partnership between Philadelphia Gas Works and Conshohocken-based Liberty Energy Trust.

Some environmentalists, as well as South Philadelphia residents already frustrated with the presence of the PES complex, are strongly opposed to adding a second fossil fuel facility to the area.

In a statement regarding the PES refinery explosion on Friday, environmental advocacy organization PennEnvironment called the fire “a prophetic reminder of the risks that these facilities pose to our local communities.”